The 23rd Annual Seattle Improvised Music Festival

Sunday, February 10th 2008
Capital Hill neighborhood of Seattle WA

For the third day of SIMF, the last day of the first half, the venue changed to Gallery1412. This venue is much smaller and more intimate and has been the home of so much great music in Seattle. It’d been a full weekend of shows, and related events and I have to admit I was pretty tired for this final night.  But I was definitely interested in the lineup for this night and to hear them in these closer quarters. The musicians, with the exception of JP were all set up in front of the stage, greatly reducing the amount audience space. This didn’t turn out to be much of a problem as there wasn’t a massive crowd but always an odd choice I think. If people don’t want to use the stage maybe they should just remove it?

Gust Burns at the piano.

SIMF Day 3

Gregory Reynolds / Jeffrey Allport duo

I’ve really been enjoying Allports playing this weekend and I thought this was a really inspired pairing. We’d so far only seen Reynolds solo but his sounds and style were definitely simpatico with Allports playing. Reynolds began with a loud pop and Allport headed straight to dual bowl bowing. Gregory continued on with pop, sputters and other pointillistic sounds that really contrasted well with the continuous tones Jeffery was generating. After a bit of this Reynolds put an empty Pabst Blue Ribbon can into the bell of the sax and began circular breathing for long, rattly tones. Allport responded by increasing the strength of his bowing for more volume and eventually switching to the mallets on the drumhead. The combination of the low moaning tones, and the rattly metallic sounds worked quite well generating a rich patina of layered sounds. This was the loudest part of the set and from here it moved to being quite soft.

Reynolds had a small bowl next to him and it had small objects inside of it. He’d pick these objects up and drop them back into the bowl, rattle them around in it and other subtle activities. After the show he told me that at one point he became taken with a small leaf he’d acquired earlier in the day and would keep picking it up and making sounds with it. At one point, he said, he realized that there was no way that anyone could hear these small sounds that were so soft that even he could barely discern them.  As Allport began to pick up the volume Reyolds switched back to the sax and head tilted back he generated this sputtery almost staticy like sound. Allport responded to this by bowing a small brass bowl that he’d push a piece of tinfoil next to for this sublet ragged buzz. This was a real interesting conflation of rattles, buzzes and static that had an alien even electronic feel to it. They stopped playing and held their posture for a concluding silence and then they were done. A great set with a excellent pairing of sounds.

Jason Kahn / Gregory Reynolds / Jean-Paul Jenkins trio

This was the first of two sets with Jason Kahn and as JP was again amplified this was the most electric set of the festival so far.  It could just be the artists selected for this festival but there does seem to be a bit of an increase in acoustic musicians in this area of improv.  Anyway these three all were using the setups that they had previously and they mostly worked in the territory that they had previously. The wild card would be Kahn, a chance to see what he meant when he said he played differently in collaboration then solo.

The set began with Jason tapping his small cymbal which was lying upon his drum, in a rather rhythmic pattern and bringing up a low tone on the analog synth.  JP attached what looked like a little metal disc to his guitar, perhaps attached to his capo and began eBowing the strings. He worked the guitar with the eBow for a while, using it above the capo and below for different varieties of rattly buzzing tones. Gregory was primarily adding these hisses of air from the sax with lots of gaps and spaces. After a bit of this he picked up the small metal bowl of objects and placing it on the bell of his sax began his circular breathing. This created an interesting sound as the air slipped past the bowl causing it to rattle around on the sax, shaking the objects inside. It was almost like Taku Unami’s little speakers with rocks, but he wasn’t using objects that’d create such such sounds, plus there was the sax/bowl interface as well. Jason switched it up from his more percussive oriented playing to a long period of mainly working the synth.  He had a soft sine wave playing previously and he brought this up and began modulating it. He did some re-patching and got this nice slightly lower jittery sound that contrasted nicely with Gregory’s bowl/sax and the metallic eBowing from JP. As JP moved to bowing the guitar on its neck Jason brought up his drums feedback and began manipulating it with his cymbal.  Gregory abandoned the bowl and began the breathy/spit type sounds that gave the impression of a radio with nearly drained batterys in  turned to a dead station. At the conclusion of the set Jason did a bit of direct drum manipulation and JP switched to playing open circuits on a pedal of some sort.  Jason turned down his feedback volume and the set ended.

This one had a nice contrast of the electronics and acoustics. The acoustic instruments were really in abstract territory but were entirely different then what the electronics were doing.  While Kahn sounded a lot like what I’d heard him doing on recordings the sounds that JP and Gregory were using never led into layers of drones or buried washes of sound. The textures were prickly, varied and constantly engaging.

Gust Burns / Jason Kahn duo

Gust Burns is the primary organizer behind the SIMF and one of my favorite local musicians.  He plays piano and most of the times I’ve seen him it has been via a narrow range of extended techniques, primarily the use of dowels that he fits between the strings and rubs for a variety of interesting sounds. I love how focused he is on this seemingly limited technique and how much he ekes out of it.  I think that musicians who impose a lot of restrictions on themselves can truly mine the depths of their instrument to amazing effect.  The duo of him and Jason Kahn, especially after the last set, was definitely something I was anticipating.

The set began with Gust placing a dowel in the strings toward the upper register of the piano and rubbing it with a downward motion. This created a dry, scraping sound that reverberated through the piano.  Jason added to this by tapping the drum and working the amplification and feedback a bit. Gust added a dowel toward the midrange of the piano and rubbed it in an upward motion which seems to generate a much cleaner tone which of course was also higher pitched. Gust placed  a second, much longer, dowel near this one and after working them both for a bit switched exclusively to it. The longer length allowed for a more continuous sound and again it was a bit higher pitched. Around this point, after mainly working with percussive sounds and a bit of  gentle modulated feedback Jason lost the feedback loop.  He valiantly tried to bring it back, turning up the mic volume on his mixer and waving his hand in front of the mic but he’d only get a higher pitched mic feedback not the rich stew his system typically generated. He switched to the synth and patched and re-patched ’til he got a static wash of white noise from it.  Then with some sound established he returned to fiddling with the feedback rig.  This proved to be pretty interesting, high pitched feedback coming in and being quickly faded out, odd collisions of sound and so on.  More sparse then any of his player so far even with the static wash and it felt a lot more risky without this constant, easily manipulatable feedback.

While Jason was struggling with his setup, Gust added a dowel into the bass and was able to generate these great low moaning tones. This was in perfect accord with the swelled high squeals Jason was creating and the light persistent sound of the white noise gave it a lo-fi over the radio kind of a feel. Finally Jason got his feedback going again and abandoning the white noise moved to tweaking this feedback with his cymbal.. The set had entered its final phase and Gust turned to all upper register higher pitched dowel rubbing.  Pushing downward on one of these dowels he was getting this keening sound that was absolutely captivating, like a wail caught from far off tearing from the wind into an uneasy silence  Jason during this was rubbing a cymbal laid upon the drum which had its own sound and  messed with the feedback as well. After one of these wails from Gust, there was an abrupt cut off of Jason’s sound and he ended it. A great, great ending to a really interesting and dramatic set. Sure maybe a lot of the tension and interesting developments were from a technical issue but for me that level of indeterminacy, at the performance level, often generates the most interesting results.

Thus concluded the final night of the first half of this years SIMF. Again it was an amazing night of music and in reflection I think it was my favorite of the three. A hard call to make as they have all been so solid, but the combinations of electronic and acoustic sounds, plus the combinations themselves were all just stellar this night. And there is still three more nights to go the next weekend – truly an embarrassment of riches.